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One Good Thing: Spiritfarer is an adorable video game about life and death

It’s a little like The Sims on a boat, except your Sims are animals who’ve recently died.

Stella hugs one of her animal friends in Spiritfarer.
Spiritfarer has hugs in it. So many hugs.
Thunder Lotus Games
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

A certain type of video game activates my inner completionist: It’s the kind that makes me want to see everything, do everything, collect everything. The people who make games know this, and they often figure out ways to either exploit that tendency in players — by making it really, really hard to achieve that 100 percent “you’ve done it all!” score — or to comment on that desire obliquely.

I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a game that takes this tendency and uses it to make a comment about the very nature of life and death, though — or at least as not as well as the new game Spiritfarer, which is available on all major platforms. (I played it on the Nintendo Switch.) Thunder Lotus Games, the studio that created it, describes it as “a cozy management game about dying,” and goodness, is it.

In Spiritfarer, you play Stella, who is, in essence, a video game version of Charon the ferryman who carries the dead across the River Styx in Greek mythology. She pilots a boat that helps carry various spirits, depicted as adorable animals, across the sea that lies between this life and the next. If you want to have a second player join you, they pop in as Stella’s cat. It’s all extremely cute.

As mentioned in the description, Spiritfarer is a “management game,” meaning that much of the action of the game is taken up with making your boat as welcoming and helpful to the spirits who ride upon it as you can. You fish and craft and gather, and the items that you place on your boat will hopefully put your spirits more at ease as they face the uncertainty of what comes after this life. There’s a particular focus on gathering and preparing food. Even if these spirits are on their way to the next life, they still have to eat, and they all have their favorite meals. That blend of the supernatural and the mundane permeates the game.

But the word “cozy” is accurate, too, and not in a twee sense. You’re trying to build a place where these spirits will feel at home as they travel alongside you. You’re trying to build something warm, something that will last forever.

But, of course, nothing lasts forever.

The main problem with management games for many people is that they give you an endless sandbox to play in, then provide no real sense of story or direction. (For a very famous example, consider The Sims or SimCity.) To be clear: I love management games. Most of the games I play are management games. But there are only so many times I can play through the popular farming game Stardew Valley before I start to grow tired of just how limited its boundaries seem to be, by how thoroughly I know every corner of its world.

Spiritfarer is different. It is, quite deliberately, a game about how the structures that you build aren’t supposed to last forever. You’re not going to be able to reload this game and keep tinkering away at it forever. At a certain point, your boat will reach the other side, the spirits will get off, and the little space you’ve spent time building will feel much lonelier for not having them alongside you.

The fanciful aesthetic of the game keeps it engaging rather than oppressive. The fact that you’re ferrying animals to the next life makes the whole story just abstract enough to work, while still giving you an emotional connection to those characters. And the art style is highly reminiscent of the films of Studio Ghibli pioneer Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, etc.).

Spiritfarer is also marvelously empathetic. I normally don’t love stories where everybody gets along and the world presents no meaningful opposition. And that’s true of Spiritfarer. It’s pretty deliberately low-conflict. You’re not suddenly going to find yourself battling pirates or something (though you will occasionally fight against your passengers’ inner demons). But the opposition that overhangs the game is the one that overhangs everything we do: Someday, this will all be over, and we don’t really know what’s next. It’s no wonder one of the chief elements of the game allows you to hug the animals you’re helping find their way to something new (but only if they want to be hugged). Everybody does get along here, but the world is uncertain and difficult to bear. Sounds familiar, right?

To some degree, Spiritfarer strikes me as a great game for this moment in time, when we’re all feeling varying degrees of confusion and frustration at the ways the world seems to be disintegrating before our very eyes. Yes, that’s because the game’s coziness makes it the perfect escape from the present moment, but also because it forces you to think about some of what makes this moment in time so bleak, if only obliquely.

There have been other games that have made me think about the cycle of life and death. The famous indie game Passage, in which you play a tiny pixelated man moving endlessly forward through a landscape that you eventually realize is the man’s life story, culminating in death, springs to mind. But what I love about Spiritfarer is how every so often, it quietly asked me just what I thought I was doing. Why was I trying to do everything? Why was I trying to complete every task? Why, when I was going to get on that boat someday myself, was I not relishing this moment, this journey, this ocean?

I didn’t know, so I let the game proceed to its graceful, elegiac ending. And then I started it all over again.

Spiritfarer is available on Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One and Google Stadia.